In Alice Sebold's best-selling book "The Lovely Bones," after 14-year-old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by her next-door neighbor, she ends up in the afterworld: not quite heaven, but a sort of cosmic way station that looks much like Susie's old terrestrial stomping grounds - a typical American suburb, with a junior high school, subdivisions and a mall.
In Peter Jackson's film version of "The Lovely Bones," which opens today in Baltimore, Susie's netherworld is an extension of her subconscious, full of trippy dream imagery of extraordinary mountains and forests, giant camellias, mammoth boats in glass bottles and a spooky gazebo in a field of corn.
"I really liked that as a filmmaker," says the 48-year-old director best known for his Oscar-winning fantasy epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "I didn't want to show heaven or the afterlife, or whatever people call it, as a physical location. I like the idea that it was personal to Susie."
Mixed reviews have already begun to roll in, with more than a few critics wondering about Jackson's visual pyrotechnics. Ensconced in yet another impersonal hotel room, Jackson seems weary, and shy. Dressed in worn khakis and a plaid shirt, he speaks largely without making eye contact, narrating what appears to be the unspooling of his imagination. When he does finally look up, he peers with blue-green eyes as if he's been suddenly roused out of a reverie.
Opening up heaven unleashed the visual and metaphorical possibilities for Jackson, as well as deepened the mystery, as Susie (Saoirse Ronan) pieces together what happened to her; at one point, the director's camera even enters the subconscious of her murderer, Mr. Harvey, played by Stanley Tucci.
An intimate story"The Lovely Bones" is certainly a departure for Jackson, who spent seven years dwelling in the relatively self-contained world of orcs and hobbits. Sebold's book is firmly planted in 1973 America, and it tells the intimate story of how one child's death rends asunder her parents, her siblings, the boy she left behind - all the loved ones whom the ethereal Susie now watches from her otherworldly perch. Jackson was drawn to the book because it resembled nothing he'd done, blending genres in a tale that was part family drama, part murder mystery and part spiritual quest with an unexpected uplifting ending.
"I came away from [the book] feeling a lot of comfort and hope, that life is precious, and you have to enjoy every moment you get," he says. "There is also profound comfort, in that death is not the end. There is an immortality that happened."
Jackson also ardently believes in fate, meaning that "things outside our control are occurring, that we learn to ignore at our own peril." For Jackson, "The Lovely Bones" was one of those things. The first time he inquired about the rights, in 2002, during post-production on "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," they had already been bought by the British company Film4, which had enlisted British director Lynn Ramsey. Two years later, during pre-production on "King Kong," producer Tessa Ross called to say that the book was again free.
"It felt like fate was bringing the book back to us again," Jackson says.
Jackson and his co-writers excised many of the subplots from the book, including one that involves infidelity - mostly, says Jackson, so the film wouldn't run for five hours. Jackson creates scripts in what might be the only continuing three-way writing partnership with his life partner, Fran Walsh, and their friend Philippa Boyens (on the two upcoming "Hobbit" films, however, director Guillermo del Toro is also in the mix).
They write together, in various duos and singly, and they write all the way through production and post-production. Before principal photography commences, Jackson does a solo draft, which keeps all the dialogue, but adds all his directorial ideas down to tracking and crane shots and specific close-ups.
"I've never thought about directing another person's script for a split second," Jackson says. "I could never do it. So much of my ability to direct comes from the writing process."
Last-minute changeJackson doesn't like to rehearse, but a couple of weeks before production started in Pennsylvania on "The Lovely Bones," he gathered the cast to do read-throughs and adjust the script. It was during this phase that the then-26-year old Ryan Gosling, who'd been cast to portray Susie's dad, began to have serious qualms about playing the father of two teenage girls.
"He kept saying, 'I'm too young. I'm too young,'" recalls Jackson. "We had talked him into. We said, 'You'll be fine. We'll use makeup.' He didn't like makeup. He's a Method actor. He can't fake or pretend. The situation was starting to destabilize everything. He was so concerned that it began to filter out to everyone."
Eventually, Jackson agreed to let Gosling go, and Mark Wahlberg stepped in, a day before filming began.
The 38-year-old Wahlberg says it wasn't so hard for him, as a father of three, to get into the mind-set of Jack Salmon. "I just have to think of something horrible happening to my children and it's enough to make me crazy," Wahlberg says, although he acknowledges that it was hard to dwell for weeks in that sorrow.
Tucci also had his reservations about making the movie. "I was very reticent to do it at first," says the actor, who plays Susie's outwardly mild-mannered killer. Particularly the scene when Harvey lures Susie to the underground chamber where he plans to rape her.
"I couldn't wait until it was over," he says. "It was shot at the end of the shoot and we were anticipating it for months and months."
"It was harder on him than anybody," Jackson says of the pivotal scene. "After we shot, Stanley would be most affected by it. Saoirse would come over and give him a big hug. She'd wrap her arms around him. She was almost taking parental care of him."
The scene did wind up as one of Jackson's favorites - and the horror takes place off-screen, somehow making Susie's violation and demise all the more palpable.
"I like watching the scene with an audience," Jackson says with a chuckle. "I know we're not going to see the murder, but I think a lot of people are worried that we are about to see something really horrible. They start to get really tense and wound up. I can start to feel it really working on the audience. As a filmmaker, that's really satisfying."